“20 Questions” by Rachel Belth


“You’ll have to guess who we saw at Kohl’s.” This is how Mom greets Dad today when he comes home from work. She leaves it at that for now. She’s still browning the meat for the chili.

“Okay!” he says, pecking her on the lips. He sets his lunchbox on the counter and goes into the study where Rebecca and Caleb are studying. He watches over their shoulders momentarily and sorts the papers on his desk until dinner.

Mom flips the piece of frozen ground chuck. The raw meat sizzles as she scrapes off the top layer of browned meat with a spoon, a rhythmic clack against the bottom of the skillet.

It’s my job to make the cornbread. If I start the moment we finish unloading the groceries from the car onto the kitchen laminate, it will be finished just in time to eat. I work two ingredients at a time, briskly to the pantry for flour, sugar. Take them back and grab baking powder, salt. Again for cornmeal, vegetable oil. To the fridge for eggs, milk. Whip with a wooden spoon, pour into the glass baking dish, scoot Mom aside to slide it into the still pre-heating oven.


At dinner, everyone’s quiet, the clink of silverware the only sound. Mom leans forward on her hands to shift pressure to a new part of her lower back; Dad leans back in his chair. Rebecca sits on both knees so she has farther to slouch, resting her head in her hand. She watches indifferently the curl of steam rising from her bowl.

Caleb is wearing a bright-green Bobby Labonte T-shirt. He habitually keeps a stash of NASCAR magazines and used Kleenex next to his spot at the table. He almost reclines while he eats, his entire right bicep parallel to his plate, fist to temple. His placemat is strewn with cornbread crumbs and drops of chili. He has opened one of the magazines next to him, occasionally turning a page with his greasy thumb.

Dad tries to break the silence. He looks at Mom across the table and says cheerfully, “Bill Deitsch gave me some more work today.”

I never understand why he thinks we’re interested about his time at work. I have never met any of his coworkers; I have only their names to imagine what they look like. I imagine Bill Deitsch to be a cheerful, gray-haired fellow. Maybe because “Deitsch” rhymes with “peach.”

“Good,” says Mom. She also does not know how to respond when Dad talks about work. She stares, expressionless, at a knot on the oak table.

Rebecca looks at me over her glasses. I roll my eyes in reply. Dad is staring at his bowl, so he doesn’t notice we’re making fun of him.

He tries again. “I’ll be testing a new radio. Greg Cantrell might be helping me.”

I imagine Greg Cantrell to be intense, a man who lives on the balls of his feet.

Mom takes a bite of chili, concentrating on the knot. And another bite. “Will that be a problem,” she says finally, the words so hard to come by that they don’t have the energy to form an actual question.

Rebecca coughs, a single faint thing, just a reminder of her presence. Caleb flips a magazine page.

Dad thinks and says, “Testing the radio or working with Greg Cantrell?”

Mom pauses, spoon midair, as if she had asked the question out of obligation to make conversation, as if she had asked it without knowing what she was asking or caring about the answer. “Working with Greg Cantrell.”

I sigh and lean back in my chair.

Dad takes a couple bites, thinking. “I think it will be alright. He’s getting a little better…at working with people.”

Caleb reaches for seconds, spoons the chili, with his elbow still on the table, dribbling sauce on the hot pad beneath the skillet. He drags the bowl back to his place.

“Is there math today?” says Dad, looking at Mom. He holds the raisin container to his chest, one hand inside, massaging the raisins apart and dumping them on his salad. He turns to Rebecca. “What kind of dressing are we having?”

“Ranch.” She stabs a piece of romaine with her fork. It’s a tradition of theirs, to have the same salad dressing, a tradition so old no one even tries to remember how it started.

“Rebecca and Caleb have math. It’s on your desk,” says Mom.

“Can I open the Doritos?” says Caleb.

Mom nods. “Okay.”

Caleb goes to the pantry. I neatly cut another piece of cornbread, press it against the roof of my mouth with my tongue, savoring the grainy sweetness. Finally, Mom looks at Dad and says offhandedly, “Oh, you still need to guess who we saw.”

“Right.” Dad’s face brightens, though he doesn’t actually smile. He sets down his fork. “Where did you say you saw them?”

“Kohl’s,” says Rebecca, sitting a little straighter. “We saw two people.”

“Let’s see…someone from Westridge?”


“Someone from North Park?”


“Someone from our Sunday school?”

“Yes,” says Rebecca.

“Well…” I say.

“One of them is from our Sunday school?”


“Is this person a male?”


“Is she married?”

“Does she have kids?”

“How many kids does she have?”

“Dad. It has to be a yes-or-no question.”

“Oh, right.”

Mom chortles softly.

“So, does she have more than three kids?”

“More than four?”

“So, four kids?”

“Four kids…in our Sunday school…are the kids in the youth group?”

“Are some of the kids in the youth group?”

“Some of the kids in the youth group…four kids…in our Sunday school…the Kraffts?”

“Which ones?”

“Mrs. Krafft.”

“And Anna?”


“Mrs. Krafft and Amanda!” he says, smiling as if this is a delightful surprise and leaning back in his chair.

“Very good. How are they doing?”

And before long, we fall back into the relative silence of spoons against bowls.